As the father of two daughters, one of my goals is to provide the best for my girls. Not necessarily the best clothes, the best house or the best toys, but the best memories. A child’s memories shape their personality and guide them into the future. As we age we recount the story of our lives through a series of memories. My goal is to fill my daughter’s memory banks with the best life has to offer. For my 10-year-old daughter and I, the 2014 deer season was one we’ll never forget.
My daughters are third-generation hunters. Kylie, my youngest, always enjoyed shooting but had yet to take her first whitetail buck. Wanting to avoid pressuring them prematurely, I waited until they approached me requesting to be taken hunting. My oldest daughter had taken her first buck at age 9 and my youngest was now 10, so secretly I hoped this would be the season she’d ask me to take her hunting. And it was.
My family lives on rural acreage in the Texas Hill Country about 50 miles west of Austin. One of the many blessings of country living is the freedom to hunt from our front yard. However, the whitetails in our area are much smaller than the herd on our family ranch in West Texas. My daughters are well aware of this size discrepancy, which skews their idea of what a “good” buck looks like and makes my job more challenging.
As the 2014 fall season arrived, Kylie began taking a keen interest in the photos from the trail cameras scattered throughout our property. She began asking questions about deer hunting. “How far can your gun shoot?” “Will it kill a deer from that far?” “Can you tell how old a deer is by looking at him?” And then she finally asked, “Dad, can I shoot a deer this year?” I responded by immediately setting up a blind in the front yard. Sound a little redneck? Maybe. Do I care? Not at all.
We sat in the blind together almost every morning before school and every evening after school for a month. To pass the time we had thumb wars, hosted paper-rock-scissor tournaments, played checkers and hangman on the iPhone, and communicated via text message to remain in stealth mode.
As the weeks passed we saw a few small 8-points and one young 10-point. They were decent bucks, but nothing as attractive as the West Texas monsters adorning the walls of our living room. Kylie might have been ready to hunt, but she wasn’t ready to settle for anything less than a B&C 170-class trophy. Of course I knew she wouldn’t find that in our front yard. I kept that knowledge to myself and treasured every second we spent looking in vain. Plus I knew we’d find some big boys on the family ranch when we returned to West Texas for Thanksgiving.
The first morning of our Thanksgiving visit at my parents, Kylie and I were up at 5:30 a.m. After a quick snack we jumped in the truck for the short 15-minute drive to the ranch. We arrived and parked, grabbed our gear and proceeded to sneak through the darkness toward the blind. Slowly but surely we pushed our way through shin-oak brush, ducking low-hanging mesquite tree branches and dodging prickly pear patches until we reached the blind.
Kylie was hunting with my AR-15, the only rifle I own that will knock down a whitetail without also knocking down a 60-pound 10-year-old girl. I carried my 7mm RUM as backup. Our shooting strategy was for me to quietly count down, “3-2-1-shoot.” We’d then pull our triggers simultaneously — that was Kylie’s idea. She’s a tenderhearted hunter and wanted to ensure the first shot was lethal to prevent suffering, so she reasoned we’d shoot him twice to increase the chances. I readily agreed, as she would be attempting a 100-yard shot with a .223 using an unmagnified red-dot sight.
We spent the next 30 minutes watching the dark silhouettes of deer grazing in the field. As the sun began to rise, a mature 8-point emerged from the tree line. He was by far the biggest buck Kylie had seen all season, and she wasted no time. “Can I shoot him?” she asked. “Just be patient,” I advised. “We’ll be here for several days and he’s not going anywhere. You never know, an even bigger buck might walk out any second.”
Kylie reluctantly conceded and continued to scan the field with her binoculars. About an hour later I saw him — big-bodied buck with a massive rack was cautiously working his way out of the tree line. I kept quiet and waited for Kylie to make the discovery. When her gaze shifted left toward the buck, her jaw dropped and her eyes widened. She leaned forward, blinking repeatedly while giving a fleeting headshake as if to confirm what she was seeing was indeed real. She slowly turned and looked at me with the cliché deer-in-the-headlights facial expression. I smiled confidently, gave an affirmative head nod and shouldered my rifle.
“Are you ready?” I whispered. “Not yet, Dad,” she replied in panicked hesitation. “My hands are shaking. I’m breathing too fast and I can feel my heart beating in my chest.”
I wanted to say, “I know, me too!” but I calmly reassured her that what she was feeling was quite normal. “It’s okay. It’s called buck fever. This is what you’ve been waiting for. Put the red-dot just behind his shoulder like we practiced and watch him for a few minutes. Try to calm down and let me know when you’re ready.”
The next 30 seconds seemed like an eternity. “Ok, I’m ready,” she finally whispered. The countdown began. “3-2-1-shoot.” Two shots rang through the air. The buck buckled, attempted to flee and fell still after taking only a few steps. “I got him!” she shouted in triumph.
I honestly have no words to express my emotions at that point. I knew with confidence we both would remember this moment forever. A memory we would carry with us for the remainder of our lives had just occurred. It was special on a level I cannot describe.
After high-fives and hugs we sprang from the blind and raced toward her buck as she chattered with excitement. “That was a perfect shot!” “Can you believe how big he is?” “He’s way bigger than Katelyn’s (big sister)!” “Is he as big as yours?” “I can’t wait to show everyone!”
As we approached the buck, her face beamed with excitement. She was ecstatic as she straddled her trophy and struggled to lift the antlers to pose for the first picture. The deer’s head and neck weighed more than she did, but I was more than happy to step in and help. I soon texted the announcement to the entire family. Within the hour we were joined by mom and big sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Everyone gathered together to offer congratulations and join in the celebration.
Remarkable side note: While field-dressing the deer we were amazed to find that two rounds had passed through the heart. Two perfect shots provided the perfect closure to a perfect hunting trip.
On that Thanksgiving I had one more thing to be thankful for, a father-daughter experience and memory that will last forever. As far as Kylie’s childhood memories go, it was among the best. I had accomplished my goal.